Bankhead stars as gambling addict Elsa Carlyle, whose husband, Jeffrey (Harvey Stephens), futilely asks his wife to rein in her expensive habits. When Elsa loses a huge sum of money on a frivolous bet, she steals from a charity fund to pay it off so that her husband doesn't find out about her debts, but she ends up in even worse shape because her investment of the pilfered cash crashes. Sensing an opportunity, the lecherous Hardy Livingstone (Irving Pichel) offers to give her the money in exchange for sexual submission, and the desperate Elsa agrees. A change of luck seems to offer an escape from her adulterous bargain, but Elsa discovers Hardy's deeply sadistic nature when she attempts to back out of their deal.
With its Faustian bargain, its climatic scenes of torture and public exposure, and Bankhead's tremendous presence, The Cheat ought to be a provocative Pre-Code shocker, but the end result falls sadly flat. Bankhead certainly has the persona to play a debauched gambler, but it's impossible to believe in her as an otherwise loving and faithful wife. Her husky, rich voice and world weary stare radiate carnal knowledge and experience, and as a giddy fool who doesn't realize her peril she's simply miscast. The happy ending, which insists on Elsa's reform and return to marital propriety, seems bizarre and out of joint with the events that have come before, especially the chaotic trial scene. Jeffrey himself is a bore, and Stephens has zero chemistry onscreen with Bankhead to make us believe these two people actually love each other. Irving Pichel provides moments of menace, but he's not equal to the lavish trappings of his character, which revel in a troublesome Orientialist vision of Japanese culture and people.
Part of the problem with Pichel's villain reveals itself when we look back at Cecil B. DeMille's original 1915 version of The Cheat, which cast Japanese star Sessue Hayakawa as the vindictive seducer. In the 1931 remake, a white character replaces the Asian one but keeps all of his cultural context, which alters the racial stereotyping without dispelling it. Pichel's Hardy Livingstone is yellowface casting in disguise, but without the screen charisma of Fu Manchu stars Warner Oland, Boris Karloff, or Christopher Lee to make it interesting (although still offensive). I have yet to see the silent version, but I imagine that the smoldering good looks of Hayakawa at least make the villain's seduction more exciting, and, according to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's discussion of the picture, the role brought Hayakawa instant - and controversial - fame. If Pichel sits awkwardly in the role, that might not be entirely his fault, given the ways in which the altered character obscures racial stereotyping without actually erasing it.
The best place to see Tallulah Bankhead on film remains Alfred Hitchcock's excellent WWII story, Lifeboat (1944), so start there if you're looking for the scandalous Broadway star's Hollywood work. George Abbott is the credited director for The Cheat (with uncredited assistance from Berthold Viertel); Abbott also directed Bankhead in My Sin (1931), but his best known pictures are The Pajama Game (1957) and Damn Yankees (1958). The Cheat marked the film debut of stage actor Harvey Stephens, who continued to appear in movies and television but in smaller supporting roles. Irving Pichel is probably better remembered as a director whose work includes The Most Dangerous Game (1932), The Man I Married (1940, and They Won't Believe Me (1947), as well as the charming romantic fantasy Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948) and the Technicolor sci-fi classic Destination Moon (1950).
See also: A Tallulah Tribute in CRUELLA (2021)